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The Piracy Project, or: Will the “Real Author” Please Stand Up?

As promised in last week’s post,  it’s time for a more in-depth look at my favorite thing from the NY Art Book Fair, held September 30th-October 2nd. Namely, The Piracy Project at the Byam Shaw Library.

By far one of the most intellectually sexy exhibits I ran across at the Fair, the Piracy Project was, when I happened upon it, represented by only one of its overseers, Eva Weinmayr, sitting behind a folding table covered in books and documents of all shapes and sizes. Her colleague and co-director, Lynn Harris, had stepped out to lunch, but Ms. Weinmayr generously accepted my offer of a short impromteu interview, and we sat down to discuss “The Project.”

As the project’s site states, the mother of this invention was not so much immediate necessity as it was threatened scarcity. The Piracy Project is fostered by AND Publishing, a self-publishing and on-demand platform angled specifically toward artists’ books. But practically, AND resides in office space donated by the Byam Shaw School of Art in London. Last year, due to spending cuts, the Byam Shaw college library—the one closest to AND and the college’s students, the library on which they most depended—was scheduled to be shut down.

While students and others organized to keep the library open, the publishers of AND were struck with a question more and more people are considering everyday: if we can’t have access to the “real thing”, and yet still need books, what do we do? This question was further spurred by research into patterns of book piracy in poor and developing nations.  From the table in front of us, Weinmayr picked up and showed me a glossy, very professionally designed paperback. “This a pirated edition, from Peru, is a ‘copy’ of a very popular novel ,” she said. “But here at the back, there are two original chapters, added by the pirates in their printing.”

Sampling of the Piracy Project's collection.

What kind of book is this, exactly? To further explore such questions, and to look their own threatened book-scarcity fully in the eye, AND created The Piracy Project, in which it asked book artists around the world to send in some interpretation of a copied work already in print. Examples of these were what covered AND’s table at the Art Book Fair, and each one was fascinating. You can see many of them on the Project’s blog—stories with proper names remove, screenplays with no dialogue. My absolute favorite was a reprint of Ways of Seeing by John Berger, which the artist had phonetically transcribed as would sounds were she—a native German speaker—to read it aloud. It therefore becomes Whäis off ßiejing. The “author” produced the high-quality paperback on, as many another self-published author has.

Most intriguingly, The Piracy Project is organizing a “summit” for early 2012 in which several copyright lawyers will go through the entire Piracy collection and then publicly give their verdict as to whether or not the objects therein violate the law or no. My uneduated guess, just giving a glance through the collection, would be that the verdict will be mixed. “We then,” said Weinmayr, laughing wryly, “will have to take the decision of what to do with all these illegal books. Locked room? Bonfire?”

There were many things of great value I see embedded in the Piracy Project’s undertaking. There’s the shrewd reminder that just because an ebook is easier to rip off and illegally distribute doesn’t mean that print piracy isn’t alive and well. In fact, looking at the objects spread out on the table at the Fair, I was struck by just how radically digital has invaded the world of print publishing: the glossier and higher quality the high-tech POD book next to the photocopy-staple job, the harder it is to remember that both are equally pirated. And I look forward to the value to come out of the copyrights lawyers’ findings next year for those far beyond the realm of  “artists’ books”—even if the original artists’ books that foster discovery suffer (get banned) in the process. And most profoundly, I find these visual incarnations of what every reader does—to impose my distinct selfhood onto what another has written—a powerful and insistent reminder that stories are changed by us as much as we are changed by them. Even if the original volume bears little evidence of this truth.


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